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When egalitarianism becomes elitist: In defense of purple prose


I’ve been noting a curious phenomenon lately: wine writers who complain that certain other wine writers are elitist. Their criticism is that some wine writers engage in purple prose, hifalutin descriptions and arcane references that turn off the Average guy and gal, which is bad, because we want Average Joe and Average Jane to drink wine, not just rich snobs.

Well, who could be against that? Along with motherhood and apple pie, appealing to the Averages is one of the saintly credos of our market-oriented democracy. We come from a long line of Puritans who viewed the upper classes with suspicion, and despised their tendency to speak in codes that excluded what H.L. Mencken called the boobocracy from knowing what was going on.

The latest example of this wine writer-bashing comes from the Sacramento Bee newspaper’s food and wine writer, Chris Macias, who in this column referred to a talk Eric Asimov gave last week at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, in Napa Valley (which I did not attend). Chris says Eric’s “main point [was] Too much wine writing, especially through overwritten tasting notes, creates a sense of elitism that’s contrary to wine’s everyday pleasures.”

Chris goes on to write:

…wine writers need to pull back from prose that’s more purple than petite sirah. We’ve all seen tasting notes that sound close to this:

The wine opens with a windsong of spice and freshly foraged truffle on the nose, with a final whisper of red fruit that coos in the glass; the taste is a ponderous expression of currants, Godiva milk chocolate, Tasmanian honey and a soupçon of gooseberry that pirouettes on the back end of the palate.

Now doesn’t that tickle your gag reflex?

Even my rock-and-rolling fellow wine blogger Joe Roberts today engaged in a little everyman rationale over at 1WineDude. “Why wine appreciation has been put on a pedestal is beyond me,” he writes, suggesting that understanding what you’re drinking is some kind of cult.

I don’t like this tendency to charge the more, uhh, serious of us writers with being elitists, or putting things on pedestals than don’t belong there.

Look, it’s easy to poke fun at anything, and wine writing is especially vulnerable to ridicule. I suppose you could dig up a wine review or two I’ve penned over the years that might make me blush. But this carping about over-wrought writing puts me in a bad mood and moreover does wine writing a disservice, IMHO. Macias writes: “Don’t know about you, but the last people I want to share a bottle with are a bunch of humorless eggheads who want to dissect a wine to death. Wine can certainly be the center of discussion over dinner, but it should be done with laughs, a sense of fun and sharing.” Hey, when I’m dining with wine-minded friends, we often talk about wine quite seriously, swirling and sniffing and tasting and analyzing. We also liberally laugh. If Macias left us in a snit, it would be his loss.

Wine criticism can be geeky stuff, in the best sense of the word, and nobody should be ashamed of thinking deeply about this historic beverage, around which western civilization has arisen. Wine writers of the world, stop apologizing for being smart and writing smart. You don’t have to pretend to be Joe Average when you’re really feeling like the love child of Professor Saintsbury and Jancis Robinson. You want to be scholarly? Go for it. Don’t dumb stuff down. Free your inner geek. You have my permission to write as purple as you please.


Image courtesy

  1. I’m certainly guilty of waxing prosaic over a bottle, no doubt. While I do agree that wine writing needs to walk a fine line, it depends on your audience. If most reading your reviews have never tasted Tasmanian honey, then you’re going to alienate them.

    My post was less about the use of obscure dictionary words (which, as a etymologist at heart, I personally love… I’ve spent many an hour paging through my trusty old unabridged dictionary…), as it was about battling the perception that one needs weeks of education in order to appreciate wine.

    God knows I am a serious geek, I tend to go 110% in on things I really enjoy (wine, bass playing, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the band Rush – need I even say any more after that? :-). The high-falootin’ language doesn’t bother me as long as the tone and approach aren’t not elitist.

    Cheers! And looking forward to reading more from your inner-geek!

  2. Did you know that Rush’s sales place them fourth behind The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith for the most consecutive gold or platinum albums by a rock band.

  3. Morton Leslie says:

    While I cannot write prose with real skill, I cannot stand reading most writing about wine. Most of it is shallow fluff. I just happened to have a book sitting on my desk and I randomly opened it in three places to see if I could find examples of “purple prose” that has purpose and value. Every page I opened was a fine example. (The second is one to reflect upon vis a vis what we call “Mondovino.”)

    On sommeliers, wine merchants, and waiters….

    “To get the best fare and the best wine, one must trust one’s judgment without ever being opinionated; one must trust others whose business it is to know and whose duty is to help.”

    On Claret after discussing vintages in the last 5 decades of the nineteenth century….

    “Variety adds the crowning charm to all that is most charming; variety is one of the fundamental laws of Nature. There is nothing monotonous in Nature and there need not be any monotony in our lives unless we choose to make them monotonous… Every kind of wine may be enjoyed under various forms, old or new, from good, or indifferent vineyards and vintages. But there is no wine which enjoys this crowning charm of variety to anything like the same extent as Claret. Why is it? It is because Claret possesses to a greater degree than any other wine the gift of individuality.”

    Or in discussing hors d’oeuvre…

    “Hors d’oeuvre are a survival of the social spirit of the ancient Chinese and of the philosophy of the Romans of old; they are a combination of Eastern ease and Western greed.”

    The Art of Good Living by Andre Simon 1930

  4. Historically, the “every man’s” wine writers have shown themselves to have about the same shelf-life as do the “every man’s” wines on which they are occasionally qualified to report. While they may serve a critical entry level function they are, in general a boring, ephemeral waste of pulp. Entry level and “every man” is their self imposed schtick. For the rest of us there is Heimhoff…. and even Burger. Wax on, Steve. We are.

  5. Hey Steve – I did know that about Rush… because I’m a geek!

    If I continue to not make the cut in the American Wine Blogging Awards, I may start to feel like Rush (not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, never won a Grammy, etc. :-).

  6. michele colline says:

    The only thing keeping Mr. Average Joe and Ms. Average Jane from enjoying wine daily are all the ridiculously overpriced wines out there. In my opinion there is still nothing from California at 10$ that’s drinkable compared to France and Spain. Pen away I say……..darn it, now I’ve got to find some of that Tasmanian honey!

  7. Hey Joe, let’s get together and cry in our beers over being Rejects!

  8. Ray: note spelling corrections: Heimoff [no second “h”) and Berger (assume you mean Dan, not the ham…)

  9. Steve, I don’t know where that errant “h” came from.

    Maybe because I’m blogging instesd of pruning?

    Yes… Dan, the ham

  10. I’m there. Last year, Jill at created a banner for all the neglected wine blogs –

  11. Stay tuned.

  12. Forgiven! You’re not the first.

  13. To me it’s analogous to movies: would you rather make a great movie that no one ever sees or a good movie that impacts the lives of millions…. There’s room for both right? the Dark knight didn’t suck just because everyone saw it…

    I’m a believer in expanding the universe of wine lovers and learners beyond the 40-50k serious wine geeks out there. It’s a process: reach the millions of entry-level wine drinkers and gradually help them ladder their way up to geekdom.

    That’s what I’m trying with check out the pilot @

    curious to hear your reaction

  14. Bob: Cute video on your site. Kind of like “Friends” meets GaryV. I think Eduardo got a little tanked.

  15. @1WineDude – that banner is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks for sharing. Joe, Steve, I’d vote for both of you. (um, can I vote twice?)

  16. Well said, Steve. (My suspicion is that many of the people howling for depurplefication of wine prose simply don’t have the knowledge and palate to write deeply about the subject.)

  17. Hi Steve,

    This is Chris Macias with the Sacramento Bee here. First of all, thanks for turning my column (“Nose in the Glass, Not in the Air”) into a talking point for your blog. Your points and those from commentors are well taken, and just wanted to clarify some of my sentiments. First of all, I don’t believe wine writing should be “dumbed down” at all. The issues related to wine – be it sensory sciences, history, soils, agri-business, etc. – can be very complex. I think the challenge for wine writers is to cover these subjects in a way that’s both engaging and informational for readers – whether they’re longtime collectors or casual drinkers. In short, a good writer can be serious without being stuffy or boring. My belief is that wine is one of life’s great joys – whether it’s from a bottle of 1971 Giacomo Conterno Riserva or a $10 malbec from Trader Joe’s. I want my own writing to reflect that, instead of being a jumping-off point for badly written tasting note haikus. But this is just my $.02, and thanks for hearing me out. And just for the record, I do love Rush … Chris M.

  18. Flush Rush. But thank you, Chris, for what you do to help our wonderful wine industry.

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